Impact of Nuclear Power Plants

Misam Jaffer
March 26, 2011

Submitted as coursework for Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2011


The use of nuclear power as a source of domestic energy has increased significantly over the past decade and is expected to continue to do so in the years to come. However, the use of this form of energy does not come without a unique set of consequences. These can range from environmental impact, altering to a great extent the balance in the flora and fauna of a region, to causing social problems to do with social consensus and risk perceptions of people living in the vicinity of such a plant. This paper discusses some of the down-sides nuclear power generation is credited for.

Heat Rejection

As is with the case of thermal power plants (based on fossil fuels), nuclear power plants require some means by which they can expel heat as part of their condenser system. The amount of heat varies from the different components used in the plant but on an average about 60 to 70% of thermal energy from the nuclear fuel is rejected out of the plant. Some plants use cooling towers while some use a large body of water, such as an artificial lake or a natural body of water such as a lake or a river. It also adversely affects the aquatic life of the ecosystem into which heat is rejected. In some cases, the heat rejected into water bodies can cause fluctuations in flow rates of rivers and anomalies in sea level. One particular research done showed an average rise in sea level of about 3mm/yr of the Northeast coast of US. [1]

Gaseous Emissions

The gaseous emissions from a nuclear power plant can be of different forms and intensities. Nuclear power plants use diesel generators as a means for back-up electric power in case of emergencies. Most are also required to run and test these systems once every month to ensure their working. As such, they release greenhouses gases into the atmosphere. These gases primarily consist of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides and sulfur dioxides. Apart from greenhouse gases, exhaust gases from buildings containing radioactive processes is radioactive in nature. In addition, in plants with boiling water reactors, the air ejector exhaust is radioactive as well. Such exhausts are passed through delay pipes, storage tanks and hydrogen recombines before release into the environment to ensure that radiation levels are in accordance to regulations. Radioactive exhaust from nuclear power plants is also known to cause skin problems of several kinds. [2]

Environmental Impact

Perhaps the impact which is easiest to notice is the effect on the environment, particularly in terms of flora and fauna. To start with, the setting up of a nuclear plant requires a large area, preferably situated near a natural water body. This is usually accompanied with clearing of forests which disturbs the natural habitat of several creatures and gradually upsets the ecological balance of the region. Apart from this, studies have shown that due to the heat rejected into the water bodies, there have been significant drops in the populations of several species of fish in certain regions of US. Another significant effect is the increased amount of sulfur dioxide in the air which causes acid rain to form which then leads to contamination of surface water bodies of the region, reduction of productivity of the soil, and has several other negative effects on the region's vegetation and human health. [3]

Social Impact

Setting up a nuclear power plant in any region does not come without concerns and criticism from a wide variety of people. People in such regions fear the threat of being exposed to unusual levels of radiation. The natural water sources in such places are also doubted to contain plant emissions especially if the plant uses the body of water as a heat sink. In addition, during the post 9-11 era, there has also been an increased concern over reactor safety and integrity. As such, a lot of effort has to go into convincing the people living around the plant that it is securely designed with several safety measures. Among other impacts that it can have on the region, plant commissioning in a region causes impairment of aesthetic, recreational and natural conservation values and also significantly lowers the value of the surrounding property. [4]

© Misam Jaffer. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] N. Kopytko and J. Perkins, "Climate Change, Nuclear Power, and the Adaptation–Mitigation Dilemma," Energy Policy 39, 318 (2011).

[2] M. Damian, "Nuclear Power: The Ambiguous Lessons of History," Energy Policy 20, 596 (1992).

[3] A. Bond et al., "Environmental Impact Assessment and the Decommissioning of Nuclear Power Plants - a Review and Suggestion for a Best Practicable Approach," Environmental Impact Assessment Review 23, 197 (2003).

[4] M. Sprangler, "Environmental and Social Issues of Site Choice for Nuclear Power Plants," Energy Policy 2, 18 (1974).